When? 17th, 18th & 19th June 2016.
Where? Weston Park Model Airshow, Weston-under-Lizard, Shropshire.
What? International Airshow with ERSA Quad Racing
Who? 54 of the UK's best with some International Pilots too!
With around a week gone by since the event, I'm hoping to remember as much as possible, but also needed a bit of a break! 3 days for me (imo) is a bit much for an event time, though I will first off say it was great fun.
I've been to Weston Park previously but actually for the other stuff - the plane and heli flight lines. I wasn't known in the quad scene to get an invite last year, so for me being able to compete in this was something quite special (even if it was open entry!!). The quad line is a new one for Weston (from 2015), and it has grown to become hugely popular with the spectators. Many times while watching the big screen throughout the weekend we had spectators ask all sorts of questions; some having large experiences with racing drones already, some with no experience at all.
For those that have no idea about Weston Park, the most notable point of this event is that it is a ERSA Euro Cup 2016 Qualifying event - whereby the top pilots will be invited for the Cup later this year in Ibiza. As you can imagine, this sounds extremely exciting so it formed another reason to attend the event and hope to gain a place to compete later this year, so we can show the rest of Europe what we can offer :D
So how does it work, and what do you have to do to qualify? Essentially, if 1st and 2nd place are won by people from the origin country then a total of 6 places are up for grabs for people all within the home country. However, international pilots can still qualify, but they must score 1st or 2nd place to be eligible, and then the remaining 4 spots will drop down to the first 4 pilots of the origin country. With that in mind, Tornado X-Blades brought over quite a few of their international pilots such as the legendary Mac Poschwald and Krzysztof Chartanowicz to see if they have what it takes for that victory against some of the worlds best. If people have already qualified (such as Gary Kent winning the French Nationals), then the place will drop down to the next UK pilot.
For the event we ran an interesting points system whereby within each 2 minute heat you gain 1 point per lap completed. The plan was to complete around 12 heats for each group so that we had plenty of rounds to base it on. The system was a little harsh in how it was ran because there was no scope to drop a round - usually with systems like this the "worst" heat is dropped, as mistakes can happen. Sadly in this format this was not to be the case, and it was going to bite us in the behind a little later on... With that in mind, it was going to be a "Finals for all" - so you would be placed in a final based on the final qualifying positions - with 6 competing in each heat just as it will be in Practice and Qualifying.
Day 1 - Practice!
With practice scheduled to take place all-day Friday for those who attended, it seemed logical to get there as early as possible - learning the course is probably the most important thing in racing - once you are happy with the course, getting fast around it becomes relatively easy - so the more packs you get in the better you will do later on!
With that in mind I arrived around 8.30am, most of the track was setup already, just some minor additions were being added such as extra flags. The main focus was setting up Race Control - this took a little longer than expected as half of the equipment was stuck on the motorway (and didn't arrive until quite late in the day), so we ran the whole of practice without any lap timing gear.
Registration was set to open around 11, but in the mean time we were free to go on the track and get some "pre-practice" practice in - between the pilots already there we organised the channel allocation ourselves and it ran super smoothly. As more equipment filtered in we delayed until I think around 12-1 before registration opened meaning we got a good amount of packs in, not that it mattered as today was practice anyway.
In the pilots tent I decided to quickly check my failsafe as we had to demonstrate it to Craig - it was in this time I noticed a motor was "cogging" when arming (I run AirMode enables so the propellers spin on arm). It looked as if only 2 of the 3 motor poles were running as it wouldn't spin properly so I quickly soldered a new motor on while people were queuing to register, but found I was still suffering with the same issue! I then decided to replace the KISS24RE ESC as it must be that, which went ok, until the other 3 stopped working!!! I have no clue what caused the issue, and still have no clue now (they're still not working), but I had to resort to using my backup quad all weekend - not a biggie as I had actually flown it more in practice, but slightly annoying to be down a quad already and we hadn't even registered yet! This meant I had gone from a 2205 2300kv triblade setup to a 2206 2600kv 2 blade setup - they were both Shrikes so actually flew very similar luckily.
With the Pilot briefing done, we all registered with Race Control ensuring that our insurance was valid, failsafes were set correctly and we were assigned Video channels and a Group for the entire weekend.
Practice was pretty uneventful so I won't go into it in too much detail, but we got a good amount of runs each (I think maybe 5 heats?), learning the track each time. There was a fair old amount of crashing as you would probably expect - the "up and over" gate was one many (including me) found tricky, especially with the added gate just after it! It meant you really had to take the high gate slow in order to get back down. If you run a ton of camera angle you could effectively just launch the quad into the ground and pull up at the last minute, but this is a little risky :D
We did stay for a bit of night flying but at this point we were lacking a lot of the night equipment so it was super hard to make the track out - I decided to only fly a couple of packs as I didn't want to spend ages looking for a downed quad! A few of us headed back to the hotel and we had some hilarious fun with some Tiny Whoop's in the bar!! We didn't know how the other people or staff were going to react to them; we brought all our stuff in and just sat at a table. Rich just went straight into it and started flying around and people looked interested. So we decided to get the rest of them up in the, i think we had 5 in total, with people taking videos and asking all sorts of questions about FPV in general.
Here's the video:
Much fun was had, we made a little course (which was a lot harder than it looks!), and Whoop'd way on into the night haha. Probably a little too late, we woke up so tired it was unreal, but at least we had a full english breakfast waiting for us downstairs.. :D
Day 2 - Qualifying Pt.1!
Waking up early was a struggle, we were all slightly regretting staying up a little late but ahh well - one of those things that had to be done!
I believe we had another round or two of practice in the morning as some people could not make it until the Saturday anyway, so with that under way we set about starting qualifying! The rounds started speeding up towards the end but sadly we did only get in 4 of the 12 planned rounds for every pilots.
@DroneLondon commentated for the majority of the weekend, and I think he really found his niche and came into his own - it was much appreciated by many of us to have a running commentary of the racing, but also when we had downtime it was important to have something still going. I'm sure we'll see him at many events in the future!
My groundstation of doom made an appearance - I must admit I got a few strange looks when taking it to and from the race tent when I could be bothered to bring it with me - they obviously didn't realise I was watching Sky Sports from it when I wasn't racing :D !!
Sadly most of us didn't really wonder far from the FPV line just in case we missed a race, but Weston had it's own fair share of awesome displays; some truly amazing planes to watch powered by all sorts of engines - from pulse jets and turbines to electric and traditional nitro planes - it was all there. They had some war re-enactments which resulted in this crazy smoke ring from some ground explosives - it hovered around for a good few minutes, super impressive!
We had our own fair share of amusements while racing too, some of X-Blades decided to get some funky photos of the much popular Tiny Whoop, but didn't spot that there was a VTX on it - as soon as was powered up it took out a racer in one of his heats, oops! His video feed was completely switched to the tiny whoop.
Luke was dishing out his own fair share of banter with Brett's portable bluetooth speaker and Richard's mobility scooter he was cruising down the road with "They See Me Rollin'" blasting out at full whack - it has us all in stitches!
The pits area was home to tons of fixing, rebuilding and swearing (about broken quads that is!!) throughout the weekend, and tested all of our patience at some point.
Here's the first 4 heats we did on Saturday sorted by most laps in the 2 minutes. I ranked pretty well in this and had some good runs, though it was clearly that everyone else was also doing very well. The qualifying was just really a case of take it slow and smooth and bag 6 laps - the pace for 6 laps was ok to keep at provided you had the right amount of camera angle, it more just felt down to not making any mistakes as it always does. The format forces you to really race against yourself, you need to completely ignore the other quads on the field until the finals, because they essentially do not have any bearing on your qualifying results, unless you hit them of course..!
And the qualifying rounds sorted by fastest lap - Luke and Gary were very close, hitting new records each heat they went out. The rest of us were not lagging too far behind :)
As the end of the qualifiers for Saturday reached us, it brought us into a whole new test for racing - at night! The equipment for the night race had just made it in time so that was quickly assembled and put in place - essentially lighting up the existing items on the course; the gates, the tunnel and the triangle marker things.
The course looked great, everything was so much more lit up than the previous day that we were quite excited to fly it. We were told that at least one round of the night flying was to be used as part of the qualification process, but after consensus with all the pilots this was dropped - I think this was the right decision in the end as we nearly didn't go ahead with the night racing due to the delay in receiving the equipment and so adding it back in as an important race would be unfair.
The only requirement - LED's! The spec's of the race didn't specify how many, but most people had a good amount that made tracking the quads as a spectator and as a pilot great fun. In fact, I think in future this will have probably quite strict requirements - some LED's are insanely bright and in fact completely blow the image out if you are close to one on a quad!
The giant TV screen offered the same great 6-way views that we had been broadcasting earlier in the day meaning everyone could watch and see how tough it actually was racing in the dark!
I got my own share of footage using the KC250 - I decided to run a 1800mAh 4s and GoPro, so as well as being a 6" quad it was a bit of a beast. I decided to take it slow because the quad was a little heavy and flew a little different, but mainly I just REALLY wanted some nice night footage :)
Day 3 - Qualifying Pt.2 & Finals!
With the night racing finished and all of us back there the next morning we knew we had to do everything we could to secure that spot. I was feeling the pressure a little in the morning as I had been put in touch with the BBC as they wanted to do some press on the whole event and drone racing in general. There were plans to have a full film crew there for the Sunday, that didn't happen in the end due to other emergency stories, but I was still put onto BBC Hereford & Worcester Radio (my home station) in the morning to go over how I was doing so far and what drone racing is all about. It added a bit more pressure for me, but I knew I just needed to focus and get on with it.
We got 2 more rounds in that counted for qualifying before we stopped around 2pm - the forecast was looking a bit hairy around 3-4pm so we knew we had to do everything we can to bring the finals forward a little. With that being said, I managed to qualify in 8th place - I didn't do as well as I'd hoped as I was aiming for the A finals but I was still able to push for that goal I had wanted to achieve - the Euro qualifiers. Gary had already qualified, so all I had to ("all" he says) is take 1st place in the B finals.
The B finals also had a lot of other fast pilots, most notably Mac - who is a complete legend I might add - so I knew it all rode on this race. There was nothing else to do but just go all out. I sadly didn't get any footage but I will run through what happened as people said it was a crazy good race between me and Mac (similar to me and Elliot at Delta Hawks a month or so before).
As soon as the starting beeper went we both powered off, I think I got the edge slightly into the first corner but at some point on the first lap he overtook and we were neck and neck for the remainder of that lap. Into the second lap I overtook him as I was pushing to catch him but didn't actually realise I'd managed to, so kept on pushing and created a bit of a lead. Towards the end of the 4th lap I had a lead of around 4 or 5 seconds (or so I'm told), this is where it gets a little annoying for me - there was no announcement for the B finals to be a 5 lap race, so when I asked my spotter if I was carrying on (as you never want to finish the race early and you can only concentrate on the course), he just said to carry on - so I did. Annoyingly I hit the high gate, but I managed to keep it in the air and recover, just as I was coming back around for re-entry I saw Mac go through and knew I had to go all out to try and catch him back up. I push as hard as I could and closed the gap so much, but sadly, not quite enough - he made it through the finish around 1 second ahead. We had a cracking race and I nearly caught him back up, but it just wasn't meant to be.
At this point I didn't even consider the fact that we'd done the extra lap, I knew that as I had finished second I had qualified for the Euro's - and I was completely ecstatic! Post-Weston I spoke to some friends who also noticed that we did an extra lap and were also confused - and that's when it all came back - it's a little frustrating it happened, but to not discredit to Mac he won the race so that is that. I do however hope in future that any changes are notified to the pilots, because had it been a 4 lap race the victory would be mine!
The A finals were just as hectic - everyone lined up ready to watch "the" final to watch. As soon as they flew off from the start line sadly Chi and Gary had collided just inside the tunnel (the tunnel of love), immediately taking Gary out of potentially winning it.
I was spotting for Luke at this time and it happened right in front of us - Luke did extremely well to just completely ignore it. So with that happening even before the first corner, we only had 5 pilots left in it. Luke pulled a bit of a lead above the others, with Chi on his tail, Tom, Brett, and then Leo.
A couple of laps were done at light-speed by all of the finalists before most of them crashing out at one point or another. In the end I believe it was just Luke and Chi who finished. There was a little controversy over who had actually taken third place because Brett and Tom crashed out in quite quick succession.
Sadly the final prize-giving was rushed a bit before validating the results were correct - but actually Brett had travelled a further race distance in the finals and therefore took the 3rd place podium. It's unfortunate for Tom, but he flew just as great, so it's just one of those things. I think for the next event if anything similar were to happen it would be fully validated, to be fair to the pilots.
So in 1st Place we have Luke Bannister, 2nd was Chi Lau, and 3rd was Brett Collis, followed by Tom Stanton in 4th, Leo Whitfield in 5th and Gary Kent in 6th place.
After the finals and just before packing up we decided to do a "Top 8 GoPro" race - pretty self-explanatory but sounded like great fun just before the rain kicked in. We all scrambled to fix our quads, attach the GoPro's and get more Lipos before the rain set in, and here is my footage from that:
Overall the event was great fun, there were a few things that were a bit hit and miss if we're being critical, but big events like this are still a learning curve and mistakes like this can happen - so I look forward to the next events, and the ones after that, because they can only get better.
I think the whole team and the pilots did a great job, and everyone had great fun. I wish I had camped in some senses, because the social aspect of the event would have been amazing, but sadly with important races like this it's always a tricky one to find that balance between fun and seriousness, so hopefully we will have more fun fly events in the future that allow that - because the community I think is what makes this sport. I also hope that spectators who came to see and view drone racing, whether a beginner or not had great fun watching all of the action and it was what they expected and more.
Matt was busy all weekend in Race Control trying to get the ImmersionRC lap timing system working - no transponders were required on this event, there is a black box situated under the start gate which monitors video channels. The idea is that when you fly past, it detects you with RSSI and records your lap - I will be first to say that this system did not work great at all - and it was probably the only damper on the event as a whole. It seems that because different VTX's actually output different power it struggles to determine if it was a valid signal or not, and it seems to discard more than it keeps - meaning laps were consistently not being counted when they should have been.
I'm sure more work will be done to improve the system, the scary thing that comes to mind for me though is this system is entirely propriety - and if we are forced to use a certain VTX for our racing, it limits competitors bringing out equipment and could even slow progress of technological advancements within the Quad scene if there is an unfair advantage given to whoever "makes it first".
I'd just like to thank everyone who helped put the event on, despite some set backs and pitfalls it ran pretty smoothly and was great fun having everyone meet up and share much banter throughout. Special thanks to Craig for the commentating most of the weekend, I think he found himself in his element and I'm sure we'll see him at more events to come!
Thanks to Julian Whitfield for providing the pictures - again - without pictures my Blog would be utter pants - and I just don't have the time to taken them when it's actual race day.